The Black Hawk helicopter buzz never quite resolves into an ambient thrum.
Its rippling abrasions are constant but never consistent, refusing to settle into a pattern of tones your brain could comfortably process as background clamor, could survey as aural wallpaper, could switch off in response to; whenever that seems near-possible, the chopper swoops up, or down, in altitude or volume, or maybe veers off entirely, abandoning your keyed-up ears to strain through the silence for some new din to replace it.
This was the lullaby of south Minneapolis last week, the soundtrack for the poorly paced parody of an action flick taking place on the ground, where either militia-drilled white supremacist arsonists or joyriding out-state jackasses (as if those two groups don’t well overlap) whipped intermittently around the corners of our curfew-emptied streets one step ahead of the cops or the National Guard. The previous nights’ fires on Lake Street were now at most wisps; the protesters who’d held the streets for so long were now rounded up instantaneously at the stroke of curfew. Much of Minneapolis was abandoned to tire squeals and belated sirens and strings of firecracker pops that occasionally may even have been the gunshots at least one person in your Facebook neighborhood watch group invariably took them for.
For those of us who live in cities to avoid silence, who find audible evidence of our fellow humans comforting, last week’s martial imposition of stillness was no gift. Whatever activity you heard, no matter how harmless, was per se illegal. The sound of nothing happening was now perpetually the sound of something about to happen forming a future memory of something that never quite happened. Is a city blanketed in state-enforced quiet even still a city?
And yet, just blocks away from this hush, from this lack, there was life—renewed and reborn on a site of pain. Unofficially exempt from curfew, blocked off from vehicle traffic, the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Derek Chauvin had slowly choked the life away from George Floyd, was evolving from a makeshift memorial into a sanctuary, an autonomous zone, a city within a city, as Black mourners and protesters and residents established that the space belonged to them by spiritual right and by communal necessity.
If they could set aside delusions of hooded saboteurs, news crews and conspiracy-mongers looking for “anarchy” could’ve seen it laid out here in plain sight—not chaos, but unregulated, cooperative, improvisatory life. Hair was cut. Food was cooked. Supplies were distributed. Respects were paid. Flowers were laid. Hands were sanitized. Payment was refused. Work was done. Bodies milled comfortably or settled into chairs or onto curbs. Younger visitors circulating in groups eyed each other—no sharp lines were drawn between between mourning and flirting and organizing and just plain hanging. The governing spirit that held this space together demanded nothing but respect—for the man whose death sanctified it, and for the Black lives that continued on.
The color and variety of the visual art— the homemade tributes, the abundance of flowers, the spread of murals—might capture your attention first, but George Floyd Square is also awash in music. One night an EDM mix is rustling an unselfconscious clump of dancers into movement; on another, passersby are somewhat perplexed by but not antagonistic to an electronically modulated saxophone grinding solos over looped tracks.
The Speedway’s parking lot is a dancefloor (careful about the gas pumps) and some mobile DJs from KMOJ must have known how “Move Bitch” would hit the crowd. The old Ludacris hit has become an unofficial anthem at Black Lives Matter marches across America, and when we have time to recollect on this all someday maybe we’ll trace how tastes in protest song shifted from the unyielding, solemn solidarity of “We Shall Not Be Moved” to the gleeful impatience of Luda’s bow-throwing get-out-the-ways. DaBaby’s “Suge” cuts into the mix, its beat calling for bodies to make sudden moves, its insistence on unruly physicality and kinetic unpredictability its own kind of protest. On a stage farther down Chicago, spoken word performance gives way to earnest conscious rapping. These songs, these beats, these approaches aren’t in competition. But they don’t harmonize either, don’t beat-match with each other like some ace DJ’s mastermix. They just share the space.
As did the music of faith: Amplified gospel securing its niche on Sunday morning, a Christian singer-songwriter captivating a small crowd, arms raised and socially distant, on Monday night. And yet the most spiritually transported experience I witnessed was a middle-aged AfricanAmerican woman, swept up bodily into the opening chords of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which rose out of a baby grand piano incongruously transported to the middle of a city street. She was surrounded by the music before she ever sang a word.
Few songs have been as thoroughly scuffed up and redefined, or cheapened through overexposure, as “Hallelujah.” Cohen’s knotty psychosexual Jewish blues was first stripped of its sardonic veneer by the expansive singer Jeff Buckley, who set the melody aloft as a vehicle of rampant self-expression till it became a 21st-century “Send in the Clowns” for televised singing contests, even a hokey a cappella Christmas carol. But you could hear its essence here—a human voice recognizing that to process pain you must somehow dignify it through memory and beautify your response to it. I couldn’t hear the words this woman sang, beyond the inescapable “halleluljah” that means all things to all people, but I could hear her connect with the melody. Maybe it really all is in the major fall, the minor lift.